Singing with Pride.
Conductor Ryan Heller believes his chorus is the best-kept secret in town. While he might be biased, there is no denying the accomplishments that the Pride of Portland chorus has achieved in the past ten years under his leadership.
Even though music was always a part of his life, Ryan didn’t consider going down the performance path until his senior year of high school. He attended Chapman University in Orange, California, which at the time was one of only two schools in the country with a conducting program. After graduating, he returned to Portland, his hometown, to complete a Masters in Conducting at Portland State University.
Currently Ryan is the conductor for three ensembles: the Pride of Portland Chorus and the two ensembles of Chorus Austin. He received the Master Director 700 award in 2013 (the highest achievement a director can receive), becoming one of only 20 directors in the entire Sweet Adelines International organization to do so.
You are the conductor for both the Pride of Portland and Chorus Austin. How do you balance the workload between the two?
It’s a fine balancing act. I always tell my friends, it’s the same as commuting an hour to work every day. They have around 9-10 hours of travel time every week. And I do the same thing. I fly to Portland, which takes me about four hours, and then I go back to Austin. It’s just a different kind of commute. One that is probably safer than being on the freeway!
For the past six seasons I have been going between the two cities weekly. I don’t like to miss rehearsals, I like to be there with my people. That being said, there are times, such as concert week or audition times in Austin, that I must miss a Wednesday rehearsal here. However, I am blessed to have a very strong music team of assistant directors and section leaders that can get the work done in my absence, and the same is true in Austin. Ultimately, I would say that between the two, I am at 80-90% of all rehearsals. It is a rare exception that I have to be away from either ensemble.
Congratulations on earning your Master Director 700 award. Can you tell me about the significance of this award?
It was an amazing moment for me. The Master Director 700 award recognizes the best of the best. Only 20 directors out of the 700 choruses that make up the Adelines International organization have earned the distinction. It is a wonderful accolade that recognizes and celebrates the hard work it takes to keep pushing to reach the next level.
We had the goal to score 700 points at our regional contest in 2013, and we ended up getting 701 (creating an average at what is considered a “solid A level”). The chorus was on fire, and so excited and joyful. It’s a really cool thing to be happening in Portland, especially given the growth and excitement taking place in the chorus these past years. It’s nice to be reminded that we are on track and our hard work is recognized and appreciated. The biggest reminder of this comes from the audience, who love our chorus. It’s wonderful to get repeated standing ovations at our performances, and know that the work we’re doing goes into making thrilling moments for the audience.
What makes for a good conductor?
I think that learning how to conduct is a lot like an apprenticeship in sorcery. Everyone is so different and has an individual style. To learn it, you first of all have to be self-aware and know where your areas of strength and weaknesses lie. There are a lot of important angles to consider, including personality, leadership, musicality, and simply being a good human being. It’s important to have clarity on the podium and the ability to really listen and give feedback on what you’re hearing. You need to give short, simple, and clear instructions on how to make it better. It’s important to know how to make it closer to that sound that’s in your head. I want to keep inspiring the people I’m making music with to work towards an ever-higher ideal. I think being a good person, and realizing the human component of what we do, is equally as important as the musical side.
Do you have any favorite pieces to conduct?
Whatever I’m working on at the time is probably one of my favorites. The a cappella, barbershop style of Pride of Portland feeds my soul in a certain way. I love how everything, from the sound of the chorus and the performance aspect, to the visual choreography, is set up to thrill our audiences. The diversity of repertoire that we do is meaningful to me.
With my other hat on, I’m a “classical musician” who loves to conduct things with both an orchestra and a chorus. I love the choral/orchestral repertoire as much as opera (Verdi ranks among my favorites) and musical theater. The Bach B Minor Mass is one of my all time favorite masterpieces. I look at that score and see not only what the composer did with the chorus, which is masterful, but also what the whole orchestra is doing; how the two forces might be operating together and independently. My favorite works are those that challenge me both intellectually and emotionally, knowing that it does the same for the musicians. I like to think of myself simply as a musician who has the pleasure and privilege to work in many styles/ genres.
What are the relationships like between you and the members of your choruses?
The Pride of Portland chorus is a large women’s chorus. We have about 120 women on the roster now. The membership is so diverse, from 12 year olds to 80 year olds. There are beginner singers, and then there are people who have achieved the highest levels of singing and have a huge breadth of knowledge. I care deeply about each and every member of the chorus, but when 7 o’clock hits, I’m in full-on director mode. I’m focused on the work, on my plan, and reaching our goal for that particular rehearsal. We talk a lot about leaving baggage at the door and focusing on the music for the entire length of rehearsal. I work hard to create a culture of positivity and openness. These singers that I see weekly have to be free to make mistakes, free to play and try new things. It’s all about working continually to beautify and refine our product. There’s a fine line to walk, but they know that I always strive to do three things in rehearsals: teach, rehearse, and perform.
What’s next for you?
It’s going to be a big year. Pride of Portland has an eye on new music and new members. We’re now in the place of learning quite a bit of new music, setting our sights on our annual show (October, 2015) and our next international competition, which will be in Las Vegas in the Fall of 2016. We have a membership drive going on in September, with the aim of welcoming new members to come join us. We hold these open houses annually with the idea of getting people who used to sing, or maybe new people who want to give it a try, to come and experience the chorus, and perhaps sing with us on the risers. Also, there is a possibility that sometime in the next 18 months we will record our first full-length album.
Our continual goal now is to simply get better and push our boundaries ever higher. As long as we continually bring our best, and bring our A game, we’ll be happy, and I’ll be satisfied.